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The Unfairness of Bringing Up Loss

I read the David Sedaris piece in the New Yorker about his sister Tiffany’s suicide.  I found it very moving but difficult to get through.  But it’s good to be challenged; it’s good to read something that shakes you to the core every once in a while.

The article begins and ends with a thought that resonated with me.  He explains that part of his identity is that he is one of six kids, and his sister’s death took away that part of how he defined himself.  He writes (and in the interest of space, I replaced sentences with ellipses, so you’ll need to click over to read the whole passage on the first page),

“Six kids!” people would say. “How do your poor folks manage?”

Now, though, there weren’t six, only five. “And you can’t really say, ‘There used to be six,’ ” I told my sister Lisa. “It just makes people uncomfortable.”

I recalled a father and son I’d met in California a few years back. “So are there other children?” I asked.

“There are,” the man said. “Three who are living and a daughter, Chloe, who died before she was born, eighteen years ago.”

That’s not fair, I remember thinking. Because, I mean, what’s a person supposed to do with that?

First and foremost, I would argue that he’s still one of six, even if one of the six is no longer here in the same way that he is a child born to two parents, even if his mother has since passed away.

Death is common.  In fact, every single person on earth will experience death, even if they live completely separate from the rest of society.  105 people die in this world every minute.  In the time that it will take you to read this post, there will be hundreds of people gone from this planet.  And there will be people who will know those people.

I guess his sentence gave me pause because I couldn’t see how bringing up death isn’t fair; how not discussing death got chosen as a societal norm.

He asks what are they supposed to do with the news that his sister is no longer here?  They’re supposed to understand him better.  They’re supposed to think about mortality.  They’re supposed to be clued in to the realities of this world.  People die.  Sometimes people die because they take their own life.  Sometimes people die before they’re even born.  Sometimes people die of old age.  But in all cases, those people deserve to be discussed, because being discussed is a way of being counted, of saying, “they were here” whether it was only for a few months inside a woman’s womb or for 80 years, walking around this planet.

He ends his piece with a conversation with a realtor, returning to this idea of now being one of five.

“So is that one of your sisters?” she asked, pointing to Gretchen.

“It is,” I said. “And so are the two women standing on either side of her.”

“Then you’ve got your brother,” she observed. “That makes five—wow! Now, that’s a big family.”

I looked at the sunbaked cars we would soon be climbing into, furnaces every one of them, and said, “Yes. It certainly is.”

It is his choice whether he chooses to bring up Tiffany or not, especially with a stranger.  But it makes me sad to think that he felt it was polite to refrain from explaining that there was someone missing from their group.  No one should ever feel that they need to refrain from bringing up someone they loved.

This concept of shifting identity is familiar to those experiencing infertility or loss.  Everyone who experiences death experiences a loss of their personal definition; of who they are in relation to the world.  Sedaris says that he was one of six and now needs to redefine himself as one of five.

The childless mother requires a similar redefinition: especially if in your head, you have been thinking of yourself as a mother-to-be-to-a-live-child for months or years.  The definition may come about early on: I thought I would be a mother, but this is not happening as I thought it would.  I thought I was fertile, but I’m actually infertile.  The definition may grow in length as much as it loses in specifics: I am now a mother to a child via adoption.  Or it may change completely: I was a mother-to-be-to-a-live-child and now I am a woman living child-free after infertility.  The definition may be written by circumstances beyond your control, or you may rewrite the definition yourself.  These are only three examples; any life crisis requires the person to redefine themselves over and over again.

Sedaris’s article is a beautiful piece if you’re up to reading it.  And its existence and this post prove that we should talk about death when we want to talk about death; because in doing so, we start important conversations.  I would have never written this if he hadn’t brought up the fact that he used to be one of six.  It’s okay to make people uncomfortable; to shake them up a bit.  It makes them think.

18 comments

1 Larisa { 10.30.13 at 7:47 am }

This is one of those things we dance around – having a brother who died 10 years ago, I still struggle to answer the question. Usually, it’s yes, I have a sister. If the conversation continues, I’ll mention my brother. I don’t remember being a child without a brother; he is part of the fabric of who I am, and his death is now an integral part of the fabric I’ve become since he died. But people don’t want to talk about it. It is uncomfortable. And, like infertility, I feel a connection to people who then tell me that they’ve lost a sibling.

The infertility intake was one of those moments. They asked about siblings. And then asked if they were alive. I remember it being one of the moments the doctor looked up and assessed me in a way that was totally different from the rest of the appointment.

My mother continues to not know what to say. She has 3 children? She had 3 children? There isn’t common, appropriate language that expressed what it means – that every day we are ok, that every day we think about him, and he will always be her son, my brother, but that we have this hole, these scars, this piece that will never be completely ok.

2 Pepper { 10.30.13 at 7:51 am }

I have not yet read the article, but I do think I will. I agree that bringing up death makes people uncomfortable – including me, to be honest, depending on the situation. and I always draw a parallel to infertility and loss. It makes people uncomfortable. And yet it also makes me, me. It does define a part of me. It does mean that when you needle me about my “only child” needing a sibling, it hurts. And I constantly struggle with whether to let it go, or bring it up – and, in the act of making you uncomfortable, hurt you back.

I do agree that he is still one of 6, though. And it makes me sad to think that simply because her physical being is gone, so is her presence in their family. I also wonder if it would be different if her life had ended in a different manner, such as a long illness or a car accident.

3 Shonda (Texas Red) { 10.30.13 at 8:22 am }

Having just had a miscarriage this summer, I’m dealing with this now. Lots of friendly strangers telling me my twins would love a baby sister. Most of the time I don’t want to tell them that they had one — they just never met her.

At this point, though, that’s mostly self protection. I don’t want to know where the conversation would go next. I’m still too raw to want strangers — or even most of my friends — to see that wound.

4 Kathy { 10.30.13 at 8:24 am }

Thank you for writing this and I couldn’t agree more. I haven’t read the piece yet, but will click over soon and check it out.

This especially resonates with me,

“He asks what are they supposed to do with the news that his sister is no longer here? They’re supposed to understand him better. They’re supposed to think about mortality. They’re supposed to be clued in to the realities of this world. People die. Sometimes people die because they take their own life. Sometimes people die before they’re even born. Sometimes people die of old age. But in all cases, those people deserve to be discussed, because being discussed is a way of being counted, of saying, “they were here” whether it was only for a few months inside a woman’s womb or for 80 years, walking around this planet.”

I believe the more we talk about death and those who are no longer with us, the less taboo the subject can become, which is healthy (IMO). I also agree that everyone has the right to choose when to bring up loved ones who have died or not at all.

5 A.M.S. { 10.30.13 at 8:30 am }

I dance around this question daily when people ask me if Moonpie is my only child. If it is just a casual conversation with a mother sitting on a bench while our kids take swim lessons, I usually let it go, even though the Me-inside-my-head is screaming “THREE!! I HAVE THREE CHILDREN!!” I HATE seeing that micro-expression of pity cross their faces. The millisecond pause as they wonder what-the-fuck they got themselves into and how are they supposed to respond. The awkward silence afterwards because, really, where do you go after hearing, “She’s my only living child. I had preemie twins who did not get to come home.” I mean, there’s just no good conversational segue from there. But, if I’m talking with someone that I think/know I will be interacting with long term, I do try to bring it up early on. The twins’ birth and deaths were defining events in my life and, first and foremost, I intend to ensure that their very brief lives will never be forgotten by others. Additionally, it’s protective. If I tell you about them, it saves you from catching foot-in-mouth disease from a poorly chosen comment and it helps you understand why I sometimes have to just shut down and step away.

6 Kitten { 10.30.13 at 11:15 am }

“It’s okay to make people uncomfortable; to shake them up a bit. It makes them think.”
This has been my personal mission statement for a while now. I’m so happy to read it from someone else. For me, as an infertile woman in her mid-30s who has had one miscarriage, it means correcting people when they assume we have chosen to postpone having children. Here’s how the conversation usually goes:

“Are you married?”
Me: “Yes, 3 years.”
“Do you have kids?”
“No, not yet.” (At this point I usually choose not to mention my miscarriage.)
“Oh, just enjoying being newlyweds? That’s the way to do it! Plenty of time for kids.”
“Actually, we’ve been trying for 3 years, but I’ve only been pregnant once, and it ended with a miscarriage.”

Most of the time, that shuts down the conversation (as it did with my trainer at the gym), but sometimes I’m surprised by a “Oh, I’m so sorry. The same thing happened to us/my sister/my daughter.”

Sometimes I’m just too tired or too sad to talk about it, so I’ll just let the other person go on believing that we’re enjoying our carefree, childless life.

7 lostintranslation { 10.30.13 at 4:17 pm }

I read the article too and was struck by the same things you mentioned. I agree with you that he will always be part of 6 – he might figure it out himself as time goes by and the most recent past, where he hardly had any contact with her and thus maybe after her death felt like he needed to find a new normal as one of five instead of six, will not be so present anymore and memories of when they were six will become stronger again. But what do I know, this is only speculation…

Regarding the “what is a person supposed to do with that” – my initial reaction was something like ‘how can you say that?’, but I guess it is a normal reaction for anyone who hasn’t directly or indirectly experienced a similar loss. But yes, let them think that and then figure oupt what to do with it, so the second time someone will share something so personal and important with them, they will now what to do with it (or at least have given it some thought).

8 lostintranslation { 10.30.13 at 4:21 pm }

Sorry for the typos – typing on an iPad is not one of my favorite things…

9 Mali { 10.30.13 at 4:38 pm }

This is really interesting. I thought his piece was sad. Sad because they had been only five – it seems – for a long time before his sister’s death. Sad because he doesn’t know how to deal with his own loss, or other people’s. But I guess there’s nothing new to that, and Lostintranslation has a good point – hopefully he’ll learn how to react next time. I have some more thoughts I might blog on.

10 Peg { 10.30.13 at 10:08 pm }

I have wanted to comment on this all day but FINALLY have time to.

This topic is a daily occurence in my life whether it’s a parent at school or sports sideline, someone at work or even the cashier at a store. It goes something like this…
“How many kids do you have?”
“We have 5”
“Wow, you had 5 kids?” looking at my little body with shock.
“Two are adopted. they are our nieces.”
“Oh, how wonderful, that is so great!”
Most of the time I answer, “Actually my sister and her husband died so we adopted the girls.” This usually stops the conversation.

When asked how old are kids are, I usually get “Oh, you have twins?”
“No, actually one is my niece who we adopted” and then the it always leads to me telling them about my sister Jeanne and brother-in-law Mike and the car accident.

I know it makes others feel uncomfortable, but I don’t know how to answer other than tell the truth and be authentic. It would too exhausting otherwise. Jeanne is still my sister and I want people to KNOW she died. She was here. She counted and I am raising/mothering my nieces, but SHE is their mommy.

I catch myself all the time saying I have 4 sisters or listing off everyone’s name and forgetting she’s gone. I hope I never stop. I don’t want to ever forget that she’s my sister. I will live with her loss for the rest of my life.

Sorry, I know I’m rambling. Thank you for this post.

11 jjiraffe { 10.30.13 at 10:39 pm }

Oh wow. I didn’t know Tiffany Sedaris had passed away. I once read an interview with her in which she expressed a lot of anger that David had written about her, and also that he had made so many Americans think that the Sedaris clan was a hilarious bunch when her own experience within the family was, in her view, hellish. I often think of Tiffany Sedaris when someone says “But that story may not be mine to tell.”

This piece although beautifully written is angry. I don’t know that he actually feels that he is one of five, but I’m pretty sure he is saying that because he is angry.

12 Alex Block { 10.30.13 at 10:51 pm }

I can’t really see anything productive in saying to the realtor, “Yes. It certainly is, and there used to be six of us, but my youngest sister died a couple weeks ago.” There’s gently reminding others about mortality at appropriate times, and there’s self-indulgently TMI-ing strangers — people whose “being reminded about mortality needs” are unknown to you.

13 Queenie { 10.31.13 at 12:25 am }

I think what his piece touches upon is how poorly American society deals with death, generally speaking. I think it’s a cultural thing. The more I travel and the more I live among other cultures, the more I realize that we are kind of a fucked-up bunch when it comes to mortality. We don’t do death well at all.

14 chickenpig { 10.31.13 at 6:52 am }

I thought the very same thing while I was reading his article.

My mother gave me a necklace for my birthday that used to be my Grandmother’s. My mother had given it to her for Mother’s day, and it is 3 green agate peas in a silver pod. I thanked my mother and put it away in a drawer. I will always consider myself the mother of 4…unless I should ever become lucky enough to have another living child.

15 Rebs (@sullenhearts) { 10.31.13 at 1:34 pm }

I will often bring up my dad’s suicide. Partly because it is such a huge part of my life, and partly because I think it combats the stigma of suicide.

16 It Is What It Is { 10.31.13 at 4:41 pm }

When my brother was alive, I was a middle child, he was the oldest. When he died and no one in my family ever spoke of him again, I became the de facto oldest child. As an eleven year old, I tried to take my cues from my parents and not talk about him and I certainly didn’t when they were around. But, he was a HUGE part of my life and how he died and my own injuries were such a HUGE part of my life that it was so hard to not want to talk to him. So, somehow, I managed to find my voice where he was concerned, trying it out on strangers, “How many siblings do you have?’ “One living, one dead.” Or, “Are you the oldest?” “I am now that my older brother died.” And, I saw my mother struggle the most with how to answer the question re: how many children she had, or the ‘oh, it must be nice having two daughters’.

I don’t think talking about those we’ve known and loved and lost is taboo and I don’t believe it is my job to spare other people’s feelings. It is up to the living to carry on the memory of those that have died. But, how and when I do it has to be my choice and it is up to me to navigate the waves of grief and how talking about him makes me feel. I loved him fiercely and his death changed the trajectory of my life. Sometimes I have the desire to clue others in, sometimes I don’t. When I am sharing with a kindred spirits, someone else who lost a sibling, there is compassion and healing, but otherwise I generally don’t see the value.

I just think in general we need to be kinder and more compassionate toward others on an interaction by interaction basis. We never know when the woman who bumps us hastily leaving Target just got a phone call confirming her cancer diagnosis or when a woman who can’t engage us when we’re with our infant is too distraught from losing hers.

And, like Alex said above, who am I to know the needs of someone else needing to be schooled on death? But, if and when I do share his passing, just tell me you are sorry for my loss and ask respectful and interested questions if you have them, but please do not look at me with pity.

17 Lori Lavender Luz { 11.01.13 at 11:45 am }

Thanks for pointing out the Sedaris article.

“we should talk about death when we want to talk about death” — agreed.

When I know that a person has lost someone, either recently or way way back like It Is What It Is, I look for a reason to make a little opening to talk about it. Not in a probing way, but in an “I’m here to listen if you want to talk about it” way. It’s my experience that so many people DON’T want to talk about death. I, however, don’t mind. It’s one thing I can do to help when a person has trouble finding an open ear elsewhere.

18 Tiara { 11.06.13 at 5:03 pm }

Agreed. Whole heartedly agree.

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